From Yellow Dogs To Blue Dogs To New Dogs

As a cracker expat who has agonized over the southern wing of the Democratic Party for decades, I couldn’t help but be plunged into another bout of speculation by my colleague Martin Longman’s piece (playing off a meditation at TNR by Jason Zengerle) over the weekend on the demise of the Deep South White Democrats, as exemplified by Rep. John Barrow of GA, who finally lost last Tuesday. I agree in part with Martin’s conclusion:

These problems will require fresh thinking, by which I mean that reconstructing the Blue Dog Coalition is probably not the answer. It’s not the local Chambers of Commerce we need to court, but the economically pressed white voter who must be cleaved from the plutocratic coalition that has enchanted him.

Everything about the Blue Dogs (at least in the South) was designed to convince ancestral conservative white Democrats to persist in their ancient voting habits on the non-presidential level on grounds of solidarity with said Democrats’ grievances with the national party. “Triangulation” was central to the Blue Dog message in a way that was never entirely true for Bill Clinton or the DLC or other Democratic heretics.

Even more to the point, once the ancient white Democratic voting habits were broken, there was really no going back. Blue Dogs were a fading echo of the Yellow Dog tradition in the South, in which the Democratic Party was the default vehicle for day-to-day political life, and the dominant presence, regardless of ideology, for state and local politics. That tradition is now dead for rural, small-town and exurban white people in the Deep South, to be replaced by an increasingly ubiquitous GOP. Indeed, more than a few state and local officeholders (e.g., Georgia Governors Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal) migrated effortlessly from the one-party Democratic Deep South to the one-party Republican Deep South. Nowadays in much of the Deep South the Republican Party is where white people “do politics”–it’s where you run for coroner or state court judge or county commissioner if you want to get elected, and it’s the primary in which you vote.

So Martin’s right: the Blue Dog model is gone for good. But I would warn against the very popular assumption that Democrats can simply intone “economic populism” and regain traction among “the economically pressed white voter” of the Deep South. All the reasons Democrats are struggling with non-college-educated white voters nationally are especially strong in the South: racial and religious fears, anti-urbanism, militarism, and mistrust of unions as well as Wall Street. And for a whole host of reasons, including exceptionally weak union affiliation levels and a neo-colonial heritage as a region starved for capital, the Deep South is going to be more “pro-business” than most of the country, and you can see that in the behavior of minority as well as white, and Democratic as well as Republican, politicians. Empirically speaking, most of the recent Deep South Democratic success stories among white voters have involved appeals to upscale “knowledge workers” and transplants, and more generally middle-class suburbanites worried about public education, than to the horny-handed sons of toil whose great-grandparents voted for Big Jim Folsom or Earl Long (or more likely, reactionary populists like George Wallace and Gene Talmadge).

Perhaps the critical thing to remember is that a vote is a vote, and there may be a hybrid Democratic coalition aborning in the Deep South (or parts of it) based on incremental improvements in various white voter constituencies along with full mobilization of a growing nonwhite population. A broad-based backlash against GOP extremism, corruption, and public disinvestment is entirely possible. But breaking racial polarization is probably a must under any scenario. That doesn’t necessarily mean finding successful white candidates (I spent a great deal of time not that long ago arguing that what southern Democrats most needed was two-way racial coalitions in which white voters grew accustomed to voting for black candidates), but it does mean overcoming the growing Yellow Elephant assumption that the GOP is the natural political home for southern white folks.

The Yellow Dog and Blue Dog traditions must be buried, but defining the New Dogs could take some time, and won’t happen according to any pat formula. And in the mean time, of course, national Democrats can do just fine without the Deep South. It’s southerners who need a Democratic renaissance before the entire region is ruined by a return to the worst habits of the Old South–with strip malls and McMansions and church-run private schools.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.